You are here

Charities 'should not be alarmed' by Gill ruling

6 December 2010

The RSPCA has lost its appeal against a decision invalidating a will in favour of the animal charity because the testator had been coerced into it, but lawyers for the claimant have said charities “should not be alarmed” by the decision.

The wills made by Christine Gill’s parents provided that the £2.3m family farm at the centre of the dispute would pass to the surviving spouse and, on the death of the second spouse, to the RSPCA.

When Joyce Gill died in 2006 the farm was to pass to the charity but Christine Gill claimed her mother’s will was not valid because she had been forced into it by her husband contrary to her wishes.

In October 2009 the High Court upheld her claim on the grounds of undue influence and proprietary estoppel, and last week the Court of Appeal refused the RSPCA’s appeal. The three-judge panel is yet to give reasons for its decision.

The Court of Appeal heard arguments on behalf of the RSPCA challenging the lower court’s finding in relation to undue influence and estoppel. Christine Gill, represented by Mishcon de Reya’s Mark Keenan, cross-appealed, arguing that should the appeal judges find in favour of the charity the will should be declared invalid for “want of knowledge and approval”.

Keenan, who acts for a number of charities in legacy disputes, did not agree the case would lead to a rise in claims against charities. Charities, he told Solicitors Journal, “shouldn’t be alarmed by the decision”.

“Contrary to the suggestion that there was a fundamental legal principle at stake here, the case was fact specific,” he said. “The judge found that Mrs Gill suffered from a mental disorder, had an avowed dislike of the RSPCA and had a loving relationship with her daughter. These findings were not challenged on appeal.”

In a response to the ruling the RSPCA said it was “convinced that on the basis of evidence submitted to the High Court, Mrs Gill’s testamentary wishes were clear” and that it believed it was “right and proper to honour Mrs Gill’s wishes”.

Keenan added that, contrary to its assertions, the RSPCA was under no obligation to pursue the case through the courts and should have accepted Christine Gill’s numerous offers to go through mediation instead.

The case was eventually funded through a conditional fee agreement after Christine Gill’s pre-trial offers of a settlement were rejected.

It is understood that Christine Gill’s costs are in excess of £1m, including the after-the-event premium, and the Court of Appeal is yet to rule on this point. The three appeal judges included Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Lloyd. The third was Lord Justice Jackson, whose report on costs in civil litigation advocates an end to the recoverability of ATE premiums.

While the Jackson report does not specifically address conditional fee agreements in the context of probate disputes, the general thrust of his recommendations was to clamp down on mechanisms that fuelled claims that could be regarded as unjustified. But, asked whether there was a risk that judges would take an unfavourable approach in Gill, Keenan said in this case “ATE was not used as a weapon”.

For now the ruling confirms the order from the court below revoking the grant of probate and declaring the will invalid.

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Contracts & Rights Procedures ADR